Torture as a semantic game

The terms of the torture debate have been dictated by the administration and largely accepted by the media.

Topics: War Room,

If you ask Americans whether the use of torture is ever justifiable, a clear majority will say that it is not. In the newly released New York Times/CBS poll (PDF), for instance, 56 percent said torture is never justifiable, even “to get information from a suspected terrorist” (question No. 54). Even more striking, 63 percent say that “when it comes to the treatment of prisoners of war,” the U.S. “should follow the international agreements that it and other countries have agreed to,” rather than “do what it thinks is right, even if other countries disagree” (question No. 67).

Put another way, a solid majority of Americans are opposed to both of the Bush administration’s defining positions in the military commissions/interrogation debates. As Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman has conclusively documented, the Bush plan would have two principal effects: It would a) legalize the use of an array of interrogation techniques (including waterboarding, hypothermia, threats against families and “long standing”) that fall squarely within the definition of “torture,” and b) repudiate the long-standing obligations of the Geneva Conventions. Americans strongly oppose both outcomes.

What, then, accounts for the conventional wisdom that Democrats would be politically harmed by blocking enactment of legislation that would legalize torture and constitute a unilateral repudiation of the Geneva Conventions? And what accounts for the fact that Democrats, as usual, seem to have fearfully ingested this premise — as evidenced by their willingness to oppose this legislation only by hiding behind John McCain and Colin Powell, as well as by their ongoing adherence in the interrogation debate to what appears to be their general, core electoral strategy: invisibility.

Much of the explanation is illustrated by this incident, in which Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia candidly acknowledged on Tuesday that when he voted for the Bush military commission plan, he “voted for torture.” But on Wednesday, Rep. Westmoreland “backed away” from that admission, stating that he should have “put that another way.” What way should he have put it? “Maybe I shouldn’t have said I voted for torture … I should have said I voted against the anti-torture bill.”

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The word “torture” is barely ever used in this debate because the administration has decreed that the methods it uses do not constitute torture. Following dutifully along, the media uses every euphemism possible to describe these interrogation methods in a way that obscures what they really are. One searches in vain even to find the word “torture” in most major media accounts reporting on the interrogation legislation. The issue that is really being decided has been completely whitewashed from the debate by virtue of the government’s semantic maneuvers and the media’s full-scale cooperation with them.

What we have, then, is a fantasyland debate. Most Americans oppose torture and oppose repudiation of the Geneva Conventions. And Bush administration officials are aggressively advocating both. But they deny that they are doing so, claiming they use only “alternative interrogation techniques” that fall short of torture and they are merely seeking “clarification,” not repudiation, of the Conventions.

The media largely adopts those terms to describe the debate. Hence, Democrats become afraid to oppose a widely unpopular policy. And that’s why Rep. Westmoreland’s comments were so notable and also why he had to retract them — because they honestly describe what the administration is attempting to accomplish here, and more than anything else, such accurate descriptions are prohibited.

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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